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As you stare at the mass of hashtags, I want you to play a little game with me. These are all hashtags associated with social movements, political protests, cultural phenomena and individual impulses that have marked 2017. Over this year, I have written about these. Most of these events were discussed a lot and they must have come to your attention in our viral webs. I want you to look at each of these hashtags and try to remember what events and circumstances, concerns and questions, alarms and crises were associated with them.
I must confess that I only have faint memories of some of these events and a complete blank spot on the specificities of a few. At the time of writing, these were questions that were urgent, critical, and all-consuming. And yet, in the brief span of a few months, they have receded from my memory. The only reason I was able to list all these topics was not because I remembered them, but because they were stored and archived in the digital web, and I was able to pull them out through a search query.
This relationship between memory and storage is both intriguing and alarming. One of the joys of being human is to be able to forget. One of our strongest coping mechanisms is our capacity to make things fade in memories, so that we can live without being trapped in our pasts. The ability to forget also allows us to forgive and to move on, focusing on corrections rather than mistakes.
However, when it comes to the digital, memory and storage are the same thing. Human memory falters. But digital storage, outside of a system crash or a black-out is always there, and ready to be converted into memory at the click of a search button. This infinite storage produces a new crisis for us in our digitally mediated lives. It means that even when we forget and depend on our social networks forgetting, the algorithmic databases of storage will not forget our actions and reactions.
Now, we also train ourselves to forget because we are assured that these new artificial memories will retain the information longer. As we rely on algorithmic prompts to remind us of things from our past, we lose our capacity to remain engaged and committed to different questions and ideas that are important to us. This reliance on digital storage rather than human memory enables a culture of fragmented and multitasking politics, where we pay momentary attention to the hashtag of the day and forget it quickly as new things grab our attention.
It poses crucial questions to our ways of thinking about social collectives: Who are we when our machines remember what we have forgotten? What happens when somebody animates forgotten memories through querying digital storage? How do we ensure that the prompts for the new do not draw us away from remembering things that are critical? Human civilisations have depended on cultures of memory making. All our cultural products — even the pictures of dancing babies and cute cats — are indeed ways by which we create collective memories of who we are and who we want to be. However, we are increasingly living in times where our capacity to forget is superseded by our machines of storage. We need to find new ways of figuring out how we can remember things that need longer memory, and how we can be forgotten from actions which need to be un-stored.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.